This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Agony Booth review: Planet Terror (2007)

This Agony Booth review focuses on the first half of Grindhouse (2007).

A while back, one of my colleagues on this site wrote a review of Death Proof, the second half of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double-feature homage to low-budget horror and action flicks of the 1970s. I’m now going to look at Grindhouse’s first half, the enjoyable (if overblown) zombie flick Planet Terror, which was written and directed by Rodriguez.

We begin at a go-go club in Texas one night. Already, Rodriguez is hammering in the homage to drive-in flicks of the ‘70s, because he makes damn sure that the film has that grainy look, with visible scratches to complete the effect. And in the sleazy spirit of its predecessors, the go-go club owner encourages his dancers to make out on stage. One of the dancers, Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), decides to follow through on her oft-repeated threat to quit, just like many heroines of horror flicks past.

As Cherry walks off into the dead of night, a convoy of trucks almost runs her over, knocking her down and causing her to cut her leg on a garbage can. We then follow this convoy to a nearby military base. An engineer named Abby (Naveen Andrews) gets out and banters with a nameless scientist, then shows off a container that turns out to be filled with amputated testicles. And just for the sake of gratuitous violence for shock value, Abby has his men use a knife to relieve the nameless schmuck of his own balls.

The sinister Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) then appears and asks Abby, “Where’s the shit?” No, he’s not asking about all that Hudson Hawk merchandise nobody wanted. Rather, he’s talking about a special chemical that Abby has engineered. Muldoon pins him down and repeats his question as boils appear on his face, which we later learn means that he’s becoming a zombie. Abby responds by shooting at a tank full of the chemical, releasing it into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, a car drives up to a restaurant called the Bone Shack. Its driver Tammy (played by Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson) tells the Bone Shack’s owner J.T. Hague (Jeff Fahey) that her car is overheating. As they talk, Cherry limps past her toward the restaurant. When Tammy asks if Cherry’s fine, she replies, “I’m just cherry.” (I guess Michael Caine would have sued her if she said she was just peachy.)

Elsewhere, we meet Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) and her husband, fellow doctor Bill (Josh Brolin) as they get ready to work the night shift at the hospital. Bill sits down to eat with their son Tony (Rebel Rodriguez), who’s got a box of a Lucky Charms-esque cereal called Great White Bites. I wonder if its slogan is “Just when you thought it was safe to reach inside for the prize”?

While this is going on, Dakota secretly texts her lover, to say that Bill has discovered their illicit affair and is on to them.

Back at the Bone Shack, Cherry meets up with her former flame El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). She tells him that she’s no longer a go-go dancer, and plans to be a standup comedian. El Wray tells her that she isn’t funny, to which Cherry replies that people tell her she’s hilarious. Which I guess means that El Wray didn’t see Scream. They engage in typical love/hate banter before El Wray agrees to give Cherry a ride to wherever she wants to go.

Meanwhile, Dakota and Bill arrive at the hospital, and she tells him goodbye. He replies, “Don’t you mean, ‘See you later’?” To which she responds, “Of course.” These two put the Kardashians’ dysfunction to shame.

Bill then examines a guy named Joe (Nicky Katt) who has a wound on his arm. Bill and his disinterested partner look at the wound, and then also notice Joe’s puss-filled tongue. They inform Joe that his arm needs to be amputated before the infection spreads to his chest. Bill sternly calls in Dakota, who arrives with a pocketful of multicolored syringes that she calls her “friends”.

She explains that her first “friend”, the yellow one, takes the sting away. The second, the blue, is something he’ll barely feel. When she injects Joe with the third, a red-capped syringe, Dakota quietly tells Joe as he loses consciousness, “You’ll never see me again.” Dr. Kevorkian has nothing on this girl.

Next, we see Tammy having car trouble again, and as fate would have it, she’s near that military base. After failing to hitch a ride, she’s grabbed by zombies, who proceed to make her their dinner. El Wray and Cherry drive past the carnage, with El Wray simply blowing this zombie attack off as roadkill being dragged away, even though it was quite obviously a person.

Suddenly, human forms appear out of the darkness, and El Wray violently swerves his truck in order to avoid hitting them. The truck rolls over and gets attacked by zombies, who rip off Cherry’s leg before being chased away by El Wray’s gunfire.

El Wray takes Cherry to the hospital and explains to Dr. Bill how the zombies took her leg. He says that shooting them didn’t slow them down, adding, “I never miss!” Get used to that line, by the way, because El Wray keeps repeating it, hoping it’ll become his own personal “Go ahead, make my day”.

Then we meet the sheriff (Michael Biehn). He and his deputy (Tom Savini) arrive at the hospital, and begin to give El Wray crap because of their vague past dealings. El Wray notices that more people in the hospital are displaying those same zombie boils on their faces, and more wounded people start pouring in. But this doesn’t stop the sheriff from handcuffing El Wray for unclear reasons, and hauling him off to the station.

Down at the station, we meet another officer named Earl McGraw, a shared Rodriguez/Tarantino character previously seen in From Dusk till Dawn, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and of course Death Proof, played once again by Michael Parks. A phone call then reveals that the sheriff happens to be the brother of J.T., proprietor of the Bone Shack. Over at the Shack, J.T. wonders why there are so many people outside his restaurant door, not realizing that they’re zombies hoping to make him their next blue plate special.

Meanwhile, Cherry wakes up in her hospital room, and is shocked that one of her legs is now gone.

As it turns out, one of the wounded in the hospital is Tammy, whose brain has been ripped out of her head. In a lame moment, an orderly describes her as a “no-brainer”. Bill makes a point of showing Dakota the body, which horrifies her.

Bill traps Dakota in a back room, and uses her own syringes on her. As she starts to go numb, Bill grabs her cell phone, compares it to Tammy’s cell phone, and confirms that Tammy is the person she was having an affair with. Just as he’s about to do her in with the red syringe, the orderly barges in to report that all the bodies have disappeared.

At the police station, Deputy Savini runs in, pissed off because one of the zombies chomped off his ring finger. According to him, the zombie is still sitting in his patrol car. This prompts the sheriff to send another nameless deputy out to check, but there’s nobody in the car.

Zombies then appear and make short work of the nameless deputy as quickly as if he were wearing a red shirt. Savini and the sheriff shoot other random undead down as more police arrive. El Wray helps out, and tells the sheriff that he’s going back to the hospital to get Cherry. A moment later, the sheriff’s car randomly blows up, so he decides to join El Wray in his big truck.

Despite the fact that there are now zombies roaming around the hospital, Bill calmly walks back to where he left Dakota. Along the way he encounters Joe, now a one-armed zombie who proceeds to wipe puss and crap all over his face.

To demonstrate how far the zombie virus has spread, we visit Earl McGraw in his home as he feeds his elderly wife some soup. After the sheriff calls him to ask him to bring ammo to the hospital, Earl realizes that his wife now has a taste for something a little different than soup, and she lunges at her husband, who’s presumably forced to take her out.

The next scene is where the film really starts becoming too bonkers for its own good. Dakota escapes from the hospital by crashing through a window and landing two stories down. Amazingly, she walks away without so much as a scratch on her (at least when the heroine of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did the same thing, she was covered with cuts and bruises). She then attempts to get into her car with her still numb and useless hands, breaking her wrist in the process. Then sloppy editing shows her just getting into the car, as an explosion from who-knows-where is heard.

Dakota drives off as El Wray and the sheriff arrive at the hospital. Wray does some kung fu on the zombies, while the hospital goes up in flames. He meets up with Cherry, who’s mourning her lost leg. She says, “I’m going to be a standup comedian? Who’s going to laugh now?” Nobody watching this movie, that’s for sure.

El Wray has an equally lame retort: “Would you quit crying over fucking spilt milk?” Somehow, that lacks the punch Indiana Jones brought to the line “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.” In Evil Dead style, El Wray sticks a table leg on her, somehow allowing her to walk. They head back to the truck, and as El Wray fights off zombies, Cherry limps around and delivers the understatement of the film with, “This is ridiculous!”

We then see why Dakota makes for great Mother of the Year material, when we meet her babysitters and see that she’s entrusted her son’s care to bitchy, sex-crazed twins (Electra and Elise Avellan). Dakota arrives and kicks them out after they complain that Tammy didn’t show up when she was supposed to.

Dakota plans to drive her son to safety, but first we get to watch as the kid packs up his turtle, scorpion, and tarantula. As they drive away, the car is suddenly attacked. Except it’s not zombies, but rather those two pissed-off twins. Eventually, Dakota gets away.

Back at the Bone Shack, the sheriff deputizes the gathering crowd, except for El Wray. Sure, that’s logical.

Meanwhile, Dakota takes her son to her estranged father’s home, and it turns out her father is Earl. But before Dakota goes to meet him, she gives her son a gun for protection, and tells him to shoot anyone he sees. The kid asks, “What if it’s Dad?” To which Dakota replies, “Especially if it’s your dad.”

Unfortunately, just as Dakota gets out, the kid ends up shooting himself in the head. His zombie dad Bill then shows up, with more zombies in tow. Luckily, Earl lets her inside just in time.

Back at the Bone Shack, El Wray and Cherry do the same thing every couple does when the world is going to hell: have sex. This ends with more grainy-looking film and, mercifully, a “Missing Reel” card.

When we return from this interlude, the Bone Shack is up in flames, zombies are approaching, and the sheriff has been shot by one of his own incompetent underlings. Dakota and Earl also arrive together with those crazy twins (what’s a smashed car between friends, right?).

As the sheriff is dying, he says that they should give all their guns to El Wray. Well, I feel better already. The zombies burst in and rip Savini to bits. Our heroes then blast their way through more zombies before they pack up the survivors and head out.

Our intrepid bunch gets a few miles away, but are stopped at a bridge by more zombies. The sheriff says that they don’t have enough ammo to deal with all of them. Fortunately, they get rescued by Lt. Muldoon and his men, who take them into custody.

Next thing we know, our heroes are in a prison cell with Abby, who explains that the substance in the atmosphere is part of something called “Project Terror”. He also explains that constant inhalation of the gas delays mutation.

Cherry and Dakota are taken into an elevator by two soldiers. As the elevator heads down, we see one of the soldiers is played by Quentin Tarantino. He taunts Cherry, and this conversation proves once again that, as an actor, Tarantino’s an awesome director. And oh yeah, boils are developing on his face, too.

Upstairs, El Wray shoots the guards watching over his cell. He and Abby then track down Muldoon. During this conversation, Muldoon has a bizarre monologue that includes him explaining that he secretly killed Osama bin Laden, and his story is eerily similar to the actual assassination that didn’t happen until four years later.

Bad editing and grainy film take over the narrative again, as Muldoon transforms into the most ridiculous looking zombie ever. Finally, El Wray shoots him.

Meanwhile, Cherry and Dakota engage in girl talk. Tarantino returns to give Cherry more shit, so she snaps off a piece of her wooden leg and jams it into his eye. Being a zombie, however, he shrugs this off and takes off his pants so he can presumably sex her up, but it turns out his junk has been affected by the virus and is melting off. Dear God. Dakota then regains the use of her hands, and pulls out syringes she had stashed away and uses them to incapacitate Tarantino. So I guess that broken wrist healed itself.

El Wray and Abby arrive, and now El Wray attaches an M4 Carbine assault rifle to Cherry’s leg. And not only is she able to walk around on the rifle, but she’s also somehow able to fire it without pulling a trigger. I guess the thing reads her mind?

The four break out the other survivors. J.T. says that there are helicopters nearby they can use to escape, and he and the sheriff stay behind to heroically sacrifice themselves.

Our band fights their way out of the facility, with Abby getting his head blown off. We then get a moment where Cherry launches herself into the air with an M203 grenade launcher attached to her gun leg, in a gag that’s even dumber than that “nuke the fridge” thing.

Zombie Bill arrives to threaten Dakota one last time, before Earl does the fatherly thing and kills him. But it seems El Wray is mortally wounded. He tells a crying Cherry not to worry though, because she won’t be alone. He then points to her (presumably now pregnant) belly and again says his awful “I never miss” line. Geez, enough already!

The film ends with our survivors setting up shop on a beach in Mexico, for all the good that’ll do them, and sure enough, Cherry is now a mom. A quick post-credits scene shows Dakota’s son alive again, and playing with his turtle, scorpion, and tarantula. Because why not?

Planet Terror is certainly entertaining, with Rodriguez’s love for zombie films shining through in the same way that Sergio Leone’s love for westerns shined through in his movies. The cast is game as well, with Biehn and Fahey being their usual dependable selves, and McGowan and Shelton playing more appealing characters than the ones they respectively played in Scream and Valentine.

The only weak link is Freddy Rodriguez, who tries to make El Wray an Eastwood-esque rogue, but instead comes off as an annoying prick.

The real problem with the movie is that its tongue is a bit too firmly in its cheek. The zombie films of George Romero were flamboyant, to say the least. But those are beloved films (well, the first three, anyway) because there’s just enough seriousness injected into the proceedings to make audiences want to follow things through to the end.

I also disliked the zombie makeup of Planet Terror, which was way too over the top. In fairness, monster makeup can be a tricky thing to pull off, but instead of being scared, my first thought at seeing the zombies was to pity the actors buried under all that silly putty.

I know there will be people who will argue that the film’s flaws are intentional, in that they’re supposed to resemble similar Z-grade films of the ‘70s. But homages can only carry a movie so far before they overwhelm the narrative of the movie itself.

For example, I know that many will point out that those films of the ‘70s also had that grainy look, and that it’s part of their charm. And I would actually be inclined to agree with that sentiment. However, I wonder if it ever crossed Rodriguez’s mind that the grainy film and “missing reel” scenes of such movies were not put in there intentionally.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Heart Like a Wheel (1983)

-Shirley Muldowney when a reporter asks "What's a beautiful girl like you doing on a racetrack like this?".

This uplifting true story depicts how Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia) became the first woman to be successful in the world of drag racing.
Her quest begins in 1956 New York when she convinces her husband Jack (Leo Rossi) to let her drive her sportscar on deserted roads at night, which is something Jack does in his spare time.

By the mid-1960s, Shirley prepares to officially enter the National Hot Rod Association. She goes through difficulty in getting the necessary signatures for her NHRA license in the male-dominated sport. But fortune smiles on Shirley when she encounters racer Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges), who helps her get her license, and, later on, propositions her, despite the fact that they are both married.

Shirley's success on the road, naturally, prompts her compete year round. This desire leads to her divorce from Jack, although their son John (Anthony Edwards) continues to support his mom.

Eventually, Shirley and Connie become lovers and he becomes her fuel chief. But even their relationship becomes strained after he is suspended by the NHRA. Connie later gets reinstated and the film ends with the two competing in a 1980 race, which Shirley wins.

The film has a nice cast, with Bedelia giving a nice performance in the lead. Ironically, the real-life Muldowney, who was a consultant on the film, didn't much care for Bedelia's portrayal of her, citing how, in interviews, the actress stated her dislike for racing.

Regardless, Bedelia was rightfully nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance, but, today, she is best known for her roles in Die Hard (1988), Presumed Innocent (1990) and the TV series Parenthood.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Interview with Ariana Richards

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Ariana Richards, who is best known for playing Lex in the classic film Jurassic Park (1993). In recent years, she has also made her a name for herself as an artist. Her work can be viewed on the website Gallery Ariana.

1. Ariana, I’m going start by asking you a question I’m sure you’ve been asked numerous times. What was it like working with Steven Spielberg?

A-Yes, I’ve been asked that before, but I have so many good memories. I still remember when I first met Steven. I was on my way to Disneyland with my mom & sister. We were about to leave the house when my agent called saying Steven would like to meet with me. He was just so friendly and easygoing when I walked into his office. By the end, he was asking, “Are you busy this summer, Ariana?” Of course I said no and he said you got the job. He was great, warm and enthusiastic. When I’d get a scene just right, Steven would leap out of his director’s chair and give me a hug. We’ve stayed in touch and have become friends. I’m happy to see him whenever possible. He sends me a Xmas gift each year.

2. You briefly reprised Lex in the first Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). What was that like?

A- I got to have a cameo with Joseph (Mazzello, who played Tim). It was really great that they wanted to bring the kids back and be a part of Jurassic. Coming to the set again with Steven, Jeff Goldblum, and Joe, just felt natural. It was kind of like I’d never left.

3. You acted in other films and TV shows both before and after Jurassic Park. Do you have any fond memories of any of those?

A-Oh, yeah. I started acting at 6. I’ve been in over 20 films and have had some wonderful experiences. I’ve filmed in the highlands of Scotland for The Princess Stallion. I’ve worked with Neil Simon on stage in LA for Jake’s Women. Angus, which was a coming of age story, was a memorable one. I’ve gotten opportunities to do some interesting films. There’s also Tremors (laughs), It has a huge cult following. Apparently this year is the movie’s 25th anniversary.

4. Are there any actors, actresses or directors you’d like to work with?

A-There are so many talented people out there in the business. I’d have to take time for a complete answer. I’ve worked with some great directors. Steven Spielberg, obviously. I also liked working with Mark Haber, who directed Princess Stallion, as well as Neil Simon. I worked with actors such as Kathy Bates, Alan Alda and Helen Hunt. It would be great to work with J. J. Abrams. Of course, if I had the chance to work with Steven again, it would be hard to say no (laughs).

5. Is there a specific genre you are a fan of?

A-I like a lot of different genres of films. I’ve done quite a bit of sci-fi, obviously (laughs). But I like dramas, comedies. I’m not so much a fan of horror as the other genres. I also like period pieces because they pose the additional challenge of taking place in a different time.

6. You have also dabbled in music with the album First Love and later recording a cover version of “The Prayer.” What was it like doing something like that?

A-I enjoyed doing my music. I love singing. After Jurassic, I was approached to do a CD in Japan. It was a total blast, the recording and studio experience. I guess I have an appreciation for many forms of art (laughs).

7. In recent years, you’ve made your mark as an accomplished artist. You are also a descendant of Renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli. Would you say that that was what inspired you to become a painter yourself?

A-Definitely! The fact that art was already was in my blood. My maternal grandmother was also a professional artist, an oil painter. She gave me training and lessons when I was 10. All of my formalized education started at age 12. Then I continued on with art training and with a tutor who was a teacher for the Disney artists. After a degree program in Fine Art and Drama with Skidmore College, I did quite a bit of art training with a mentoring program, where I learned many things that I could have never learned in school. It got me inspired and it took off from there. On a movie set, I’d often have my sketchbook, jotting down ideas. After Jurassic, I wanted to boil down my emotional experience filming that movie, and painted “Raptor Vision”, a watercolor self portrait of the jello scene.

8. You’ve done a variety of paintings, including people and landscapes. Do you have a preference as to what you like to paint?

A-I would say, if I had to choose, I really enjoy portraits of people. I enjoy the process of getting to know people & collaborating on a vision with them. It’s kind of like being a director in a way, expressing their essence on canvas. I get to know their personalities. It’s especially nice when they receive their portraits and they tell me their reaction.

9. Do you ever fancy the notion of acting in the future?

A-Absolutely. I’ve always loved acting. If the right role comes along, I would certainly take it. I haven’t really been looking around for acting roles recently, though, because I’ve been focused on my art career. But if something comes my way, I’d be happy to look at it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Agony Booth review: Valentine (2001)

I once stated that Valentine was the worst slasher movie ever made. My latest Agony Booth work explains why I think that.
Although movies like Psycho and the films of Dario Argento are often credited as the genesis of the slasher film, the horror subgenre as we know it came to life with John Carpenter’s Halloween. The success of that film led to a slew of imitators for the following decade. But this oversaturation of slashers (and their by-the-numbers plots) led to them all but dying out by the end of the ‘80s.

However, they were revived in 1996 with the release of Wes Craven’s Scream. One reason that film became noteworthy was for how it poked fun at the conventions of slasher movies (such as the “have sex and die” rule), even though many of the characters in the film proved as shallow as those in previous entries in the genre. But just like Halloween, Scream brought about too many sequels and a sea of imitators.

Valentine, released in 2001, is easily one of the worst films released as part of the Scream-inspired slasher renaissance of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s (I know that’s saying a lot, and I’ll explain shortly). It was directed by Jamie Blanks, who had success previously with the routine but watchable slasher Urban Legend.

We start the film in 1988 at a junior high school Valentine’s Day dance. A nerdish boy named Jeremy Melton, who looks a bit like the preteen version of Stephen King, goes around asking some of his female classmates to dance. He first approaches Shelley, who tells him, “In your dreams.” The second girl, Lily, simply goes “Ewww!” Next, a girl named Paige declares that she’d rather be boiled alive. Another girl, Kate, somewhat breaks this rejection streak by telling him, “Maybe later.”

Finally, Jeremy comes across the slightly chubby Dorothy and asks her to dance. Cut to the two of them making out underneath the bleachers. Their fun is soon interrupted by a group of guys who cruelly point out that the overweight girl is getting some action. Suddenly, Dorothy claims that Jeremy assaulted her.

And as if the Stephen King parallel weren’t already strong enough, the guys dump a bowl of punch on Jeremy’s head a la Carrie (I think; he’s completely dry in the next shot) before they begin beating him up, causing him to develop a nosebleed. Meanwhile, a random kid, who shall remain unidentified for the rest of the movie, looks on while wearing a Cupid mask.

Cut to 13 years later. Shelley (now played by Katherine Heigl) is a medical student on a date with a guy named Jason who’s clearly a jerk, because he constantly refers to himself in the third person. Eventually, Shelley excuses herself to go do something more exciting, namely hang out at the morgue to brush up for her upcoming exams.

It must be near Valentine’s Day again, because Shelley discovers she’s received a creepy valentine reading, “The journey of love is an arduous trek / My love grows for you as you bleed from your neck”. And yet, this doesn’t stop her from continuing to stay in a morgue, all by herself, in the middle of the night. As she’s about to make an incision into a corpse, the corpse’s stomach suddenly moves, freaking her out. Shelley bolts out of there and is soon followed by a guy wearing a Cupid mask.

Why the killer in this movie wears a Cupid mask is anyone’s guess, since the movie never bothers to establish any sort of connection between the killer and the kid in 1988 who was looking on passively while Jeremy got beaten up. Obviously, they had to come up with some sort of mask because the killer in Scream had a memorable mask.

Shelley makes it to a room full of corpses in body bags, and proves she’s as stupid as her assailant by hiding in one of them. Not surprisingly, the killer, with his nose bleeding through the mask, finds her and slashes her throat, thus ending Heigl’s brief cameo appearance.

In the next scene, the grown-up Paige and Kate (Denise Richards and Marley Shelton) are doing a bit of speed dating. Kate’s conversation with an annoying guy is interrupted by Paige, who reveals that Kate’s off-limits because she’s in a serious relationship, but Paige is available (with friends like these...).

Afterward, they’re informed of Shelley’s death. Cut to her funeral, where Paige and Kate meet up with Lily (Jessica Cauffiel) and Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw). Much is made of how Paige, because she’s played by Denise Richards, is wearing a low cut dress to a funeral that shows off her cleavage.

The four women are questioned about the murder by police detective Vaughn, who says he’ll be interrogating that Jason guy that Shelley was on a date with before her murder. Afterward, Kate meets up with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Adam Carr (David Boreanaz). After he drives off, Paige expresses doubts that Adam can overcome his alcohol problem. Kate replies, “He’s not a drunk. He’s a borderline addictive personality who happens to like alcohol a lot,” which makes just about as much sense as saying that Jeffrey Dahmer just happened to like different kinds of meat.

Dorothy returns home and gets a creepy valentine of her own, which reads, “Roses are red / Violets are blue / They’ll need dental records to identify you”. As she brushes this off, we learn Dorothy comes from a rich family with a huge house and a maid, and her dad has a foreign bride who, like all stepmoms of rich girls in movies, is even younger than she is.

Dorothy’s new boyfriend Campbell (Daniel Cosgrove) shows up. Apparently, he’s got some internet startup company that’s fallen on hard times (topical!), and he’s been kicked out of his apartment and needs a place to stay, so Dorothy has the maid set him up in one of the guest bedrooms.

Next, we see Kate taking a shower in her apartment (alas, we don’t see any nudity in this movie, despite being an R-rated slasher). She hears a noise, and with shampoo still in her hair, puts on a towel and goes out to investigate. Her water then goes out, prompting a pointless bit where she dunks her head in the (hopefully clean) toilet to rinse the shampoo out of her hair.

Still wrapped in a towel, Kate goes out of her apartment and finds the elevator door being jammed by a Cupid mask. Then comes our next red herring as her creepy neighbor Gary accosts her with awesome pickup lines such as, “You look great, Kate. How about a date, Kate? You could be my mate, Kate.”

She replies with the equally lame, “You’re scary, Gary.”

Meanwhile, we learn Lily and Paige are roommates, and they receive a box of chocolates with a valentine saying, “You are what you eat”, signed by “JM”. Lily takes a bite of chocolate and finds it crawling with maggots. This leads to the two of them going over all the “JM”s they know, until Paige offhandedly suggests that it could be nerdy Jeremy Melton from junior high.

Instead of going to the police, we next see all four girls head to an art exhibit put on by Lily’s boyfriend Max. At the exhibit, the girls briefly compare creepy valentine notes before spotting that Jason guy from the movie’s first scene, but of course, he’s another red herring. Dorothy meets Campbell’s ex Ruthie, who calls Campbell a con man, bitchily telling Dorothy that he’s only using her for her money before thankfully leaving.

Everyone checks out Max’s exhibit, which is a maze of video walls showing random “sexy” video clips (and providing the only nudity in the film). While in the maze, Max tries to get it on with Lily, but she gets disgusted when it turns out Max invited his female assistant to join them.

Lily storms off, but gets lost in the maze. Once there’s conveniently no one else around, the killer appears. Like clockwork, his nose bleeds as he kills Lily, this time shooting her full of arrows. Because he’s Cupid, remember? Lily’s body falls over a railing and plunges into a dumpster a few floors below. The best part is how none of her friends notice she’s missing for the rest of the film, with only a few cursory mentions that she was supposed to go to LA for business the next day (so I guess they’re fine with her not saying goodbye?).

The three remaining girls are questioned by Detective Vaughn, who shows them an unsympathetic condolence card sent to Shelley’s parents, also signed by “JM”. Dorothy immediately knows that Jeremy from junior high is responsible for the creepy valentines. When Vaughn asks her how she knows this, she repeats her lie that Jeremy attacked her at the dance. It turns out that because of Dorothy’s accusations, Jeremy eventually got sent to reform school, and then ended up in a mental institution, and now he’s been released.

Once outside, Dorothy comes clean with both Kate and Paige, saying that Jeremy was the only boy who even looked at her back then, and she completely made up the story about him attacking her. So, just because one girl made up a story about him, he’s now killing off all the girls at school who rejected him? Why not take out his anger on the boys who beat him up? This stupid plot point is the foundation of this stupid screenplay.

The three girls and the detective try to figure out where Jeremy is now, with the suggestion that he could be someone already in their lives. Another red herring is dropped when Paige points out that Dorothy has only known Campbell for a month and doesn’t even know his last name.

Det. Vaughn then proves to be as useless as most detectives in slasher films when he asks to talk to Paige alone, and then starts going on about the “sexual tension” between them, even though he looks old enough to be her dad. Paige replies by asking him to take his hand off her thigh and put it “up your ass” (which is where they found the script, I’m told).

The next scene shows the killer adding another notch to his belt by killing Kate’s creepy neighbor Gary. He does this by bashing him in the head with a hot iron after finding Gary in Kate’s apartment, rummaging through her underwear and even trying some of it on. Gary is never mentioned again and there’s literally no point to this, other than adding in more sleazy behavior.

Later, Dorothy is preparing for a Valentine’s Day party at her house. Campbell soon becomes the next victim when he goes down to the basement to re-light the furnace, and gets an axe to his back. Oh, and this is just after he makes a phone call revealing he’s a con man after all, for whatever that’s worth.

But the party must go on, and all the girls soon show up at Dorothy’s house. Paige meets up again with that annoying guy from speed dating, and in another pointless scene, he attempts to seduce her by getting naked in front of her. She retaliates by tying him up and pouring hot candle wax between his legs.

Meanwhile, Dorothy is angry because Campbell disappeared, while Kate is angered because Adam has started drinking again. And as if this party wasn’t fun enough, Ruthie arrives and gets bitchy about Campbell again. She continues to prove she’s unworthy of sympathy by sneaking into Dorothy’s bedroom for no apparent reason and going through her belongings.

Ruthie is then surprised by the killer entering the room, dragging the body of the maid behind him. Ruthie races downstairs to a sauna, where she hides under a bench (and discovers Campbell’s body in the process). She sees the killer pass by and thinks herself safe, but naturally, he suddenly rematerializes to throw her though a shower door before putting her out of our misery by thrusting her neck onto one of the glass shards.

At long last, Kate gets word that Lily never arrived in LA. She calls Det. Vaughn, who says he’ll be there shortly.

Paige then decides that this is a great time to get in Dorothy’s hot tub all by herself and, sure enough, we get Denise Richards in a bikini, but again, no nudity. The killer shows up and throws the plexiglas cover over the hot tub, trapping Paige inside, making you think he’s going to drown her. But then he starts drilling holes in the cover, and you think he’s going to stab her with the drill. However, he finally just throws the drill in the water, electrocuting her. Geez, pick a murder method and stick with it.

This causes the power to go out in Dorothy’s house, which makes all the guests leave in a remarkably calm and orderly fashion. I guess there’s a better party, or movie, down the road.

Meanwhile, Dorothy and Kate argue again over who Jeremy might be. Dorothy thinks it could be Adam, leading to the most inane in-joke of the movie when Kate says, “He’s no angel, but he’s not a killer.” Dorothy eventually goes off on a rant about how the other four girls were always smarter and prettier and more popular than her in junior high, and she was always “the fat one”. She then angrily darts off.

Realizing that Det. Vaughn hasn’t showed up yet, Kate goes outside to call him. She hears his phone ringing and follows the sound to a nearby pond, where Vaughn’s severed head pops up. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Kate frantically goes back into the darkened empty house to look for Paige and Dorothy. Not surprisingly, she finds nothing but dead bodies (oddly, it doesn’t look like the killer murdered the guy that Paige tied up and poured candle wax on, which is a shame, as he could have been doing us another favor).

Adam suddenly pops up in a drunken state and asks to dance. Kate obliges, but then decides he must be the killer, so she knees him in the junk and bashes him in the head with a champagne bottle. She manages to find a gun in an easy-to-break-into case. But Kate loses her weapon when the killer, wearing the stupid mask again, causes both of them to tumble down a staircase. Kate quickly regains consciousness before the killer arises, only to be shot dead by Adam.

Kate apologizes to Adam as she embraces him. He then takes off the Cupid mask, revealing dead Dorothy.

With the police en route, Adam takes an oh-so-serious tone, saying that Dorothy must have bottled up all her anger over the years. Kate tells Adam she loves him as he holds her in his arms. And then the movie ends with Adam’s nose bleeding and dripping onto Kate’s face. (And, no, dimwitted Kate doesn’t notice that a guy is bleeding all over her.)

So, Adam was the killer, I guess. But why was Dorothy wearing the mask? Did he knock Dorothy out, put the slasher mask and black suit on her, and then throw her down the stairs? Or were they working together the whole time? I have no clue, and I don’t think the movie does, either.

As I noted, this film is one of the worst of the post-Scream cash-ins. However, this is not because of its lousy acting, unsympathetic characters, scares we can see coming a mile away, or its lame attempts at irony (if you go back, you’ll notice the girls’ initial reactions to Jeremy somewhat mimic their fates at the end of the film).

No, this movie is bottom of the barrel for me because it’s supposedly based on the novel of the same name by Tom Savage. That book, which I read a few years after seeing the film, had a much more original setup and an interesting, unexpected plot twist at the end. Alas, the only thing the movie has in common with the book is the title.

But even this much disregard for the source material didn’t have to mean a death sentence for the movie—all that The Spy Who Loved Me had in common with Ian Fleming’s novel is the title and the fact that James Bond is in it, and that movie was pretty damn good. What killed Valentine for me was the fact that it made no attempt to be entertaining. Jamie Blanks apparently thought seeing Marley Shelton in a towel and Denise Richards in a bikini would be enough to keep viewers interested. But it isn’t enough, because the characters and situations are so dull and stupid.

One of the most successful slasher film series was the Friday the 13th series. Pretty much all the characters in those movies are dull or stupid, too, but that series, for the most part, was not boring. The same cannot be said for Valentine.

The most frustrating aspect of this film, though, is that the novel was the perfect template for a film which, in more competent hands, could have become a memorable shocker for Valentine’s Day.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Interview with Hudson Leick

This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hudson Leick, who is known and loved for playing the vicious Callisto in Xena: Warrior Princess.

1. Hudson, what inspired you to pursue acting?

H-I really got terrible grades in school. I didn’t understand textbooks well, which is ironic because my family was well-educated. When I was 19, I was modeling in France and that’s when I realized I wanted to act or becoming a shrink. They both study humanity.

2. You spent time modeling in Japan. What was that like?

H-I went to Japan after high school. It was intense for an 18 year old to be in a different land, with a different language. Even the alphabet was different. It was amazing and scary, at first. I feel really lucky to have been able to travel so much at an early age.

3. You are obviously best known for playing Callisto on several episodes of Xena. Are there any episodes which stick out for you?

H-I don’t know the names of episodes because it was so long ago, but the episode where I came back when I was immortal is a favorite. That was fun. It was the one where I was freed from the cave Hercules trapped me in (“A Necessary Evil”).

4. Speaking of Hercules, you also played Callisto on that series, where you also played one of the show’s producers. Was that any different from acting on Xena?

H-Totally different. Different actors and different crews, which makes sense.

5. Do you have a favorite of the non-Callisto roles you’ve played?

H-It was so long ago that I acted that it’s hard to answer that. Callisto was my favorite role. The others I’ve played were pretty sexualized, meaning I sexualized myself. It just felt like trash magazines, that I was adding darkness to the world. With Xena, it didn’t feel like I was putting dark in the world. Xena & Gabrielle were the light, so darkness was necessary in those cases. It was like I was part of wonderful thing and very beautiful.

6. You are also a yoga instructor. What inspired you to pursue that line of work?

H-I took a lot of yoga since 24. A friend suggested to get certified. I got certified not to teach, but to know more about myself at 24. My friend in New Zealand threw a yoga teaching class on me when I was down there at age 26 and I loved it.
I’m going to have another yoga retreat in the Czech Republic near Prauge from Aug. 3-9. Everyone from all walks of life are invited. More info will be put up shortly on or on my Facebook. I will also teach a 90-minute yoga class and a 90-minute to two-hour dance class at the Xena convention in Los Angeles on Feb. 20. Everyone is invited, just bring an open mind.

7. Do you plan to do any more acting in the future?

H-Nope. You never know what’ll happen but I have no desire to speak someone else’s words. Being an actor, for me, was morphing into other beings and as I grow older I want to be more genuine and find out who I am. That’s much more interesting and takes a lot of courage to do that.

8. You’ve also voiced characters on video games? How does that differ from acting on TV or in movies?

H-You don’t have to go to hair and makeup. That’s really it. You are still acting opposite someone. Technically, they are pretty similar.

9. You’ve also written a cookbook. How did that idea come around?

H-One of my girlfriends suggested it. I make a lot of healthy meals. My mom often says that she loses weight when she visits me. It seemed like a good idea. The cookbook, Yum!, is available on Lulu.

10. Do you plan to write more in the future?

H-I don’t know. I’m not sure. At some point I may write a book but it’s not here right now. So I can’t give a concrete answer.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (2012-present)

"This is a temperance household, the sound of a popping cork could lead to my eviction."
"More so than entertaining a man in your private parlour?"
"A man? I thought you were a police officer. I'll try my best to be less entertaining."
-Phryne Fisher and Inspector John "Jack" Robinson.

To ring in 2015, I'm reviewing a series that is not only one of my wife's favorites, but is set to begin its third season soon.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is an Australian TV series based on books by Kerry Greenwood. The title character (Essie Adams) is a private detective from Melbourne of the 1920s. She is assisted in her exploits by her maid Dorothy "Dot" Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) as well as police inspector John "Jack" Robinson (Nathan Page).

Things start off lively in the premiere episode, "Cocaine Blues." Fisher returns home after traveling for a few years. She then learns that a friend's husband has been poisoned in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring. Once this case has been solved, Fisher decides to begin a new career as a detective.

Another nice aspect of the series is how series creators Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger allowed Greenwood herself to provide input on its development. Cox and Eagger initally planned to simply adapt her novels until they realized that original screenplays could be easier. To that end, they asked Greenwood to go over the scripts with them to ensure they would do her creation justice.

I have yet to read any of the books but the series itself is entertaining thanks to its stars. Adams makes Fisher a witty, charming individual. Unlike other detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, Fisher's adventures have led to romance on more than one occasion (I can't help but think she'd be instant BFF's with the ladies from Sex and the City). She even has flirtatious moments with Robinson.

In addition, Fisher also has occasional clashes with her Aunt Prudence (Miriam Margolyes), who disapproves of her care-free lifestyle.

Dot herself is in a relationship with Robinson's right-hand man Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt).

One of my favorite moments is in the episode "Ruddy Gore" when Fisher meets businessman Lin Chung (Phillipe Sung). The two become intimate but not before his grandmother (Amanda Ma) voices her disapproval to him in her native Chinese. Fisher then surprises her by thanking her for her words in the same language.

Here's hoping Season 3 retains the charm of the previous two seasons.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Agony Booth review: Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)

My latest article for the Agony Booth looks at a holiday film that I can only describe as a missed opportunity.
There are plenty of Christmas movies. Some deservedly become classics, while others deservedly become infamous. Sadly, Santa Claus: The Movie leans toward the infamous side. The frustrating part of this, though, is that the first half-hour of the film shows tremendous promise. Indeed, by itself, the first part of the movie could have been a classic short film for the holiday season in its own right.

The movie was produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who remain famous for bringing us the original 1978 Superman. That film was such a triumph for the duo that it’s thankfully somewhat eclipsed the poor decisions they made on subsequent films, most notably Superman III and Supergirl.

They obviously wanted to make Santa Claus: The Movie follow the same formula and structure as Superman: The Movie—I’m surprised the tagline was “Seeing is believing” and not “You will believe reindeer can fly!”—and it works (for the first half, at least) for the same reason that Superman worked; both give us origin tales filled with a sense of genuine wonder and magic as we see the title character with new eyes. Unfortunately, the second half of the film makes the same mistakes that Superman III did, both by adding unnecessary characters and hijinks and by forcing its lead to become a secondary character in his own movie.

The director of this film, Jeannot Szwarc, was picked by the Salkinds because they loved his similar work on Supergirl—and considering how bad that movie is, one wonders if the Salkinds even watched it. (Though, in all fairness, Santa Claus was well into production by the time Szwarc’s Supergirl was released to the public and became a massive bomb.)

Santa Claus: The Movie begins in the 14th Century, where a kind toymaker named Claus (David Huddleston) and his wife Anya (Judy Cornwell) are caught in a blizzard with their reindeer Donner and Blitzen. They nearly freeze to death, but are later awakened by a mysterious light and then a group of elves coming forward to greet them.

They take the couple and their reindeer to the Fortress of Solitude, uh, I mean, a magical workshop. One of the elves Dooley (John Barrand) informs Claus that they want him to deliver the toys they’re making to children everywhere, each Christmas Eve. When Claus states that this is physically impossible, and there’s not nearly enough time to do this, Dooley reveals that he and Anya now have all the time in the world. They’ll live forever, and that’s a pretty sweet Christmas gift if there ever was one.

As the couple gets acquainted with their new surroundings and their new friends, eager-to-please elf Patch (Dudley Moore) attempts to make Donner feel at home. He later introduces Claus to six other reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, and Cupid. As the next Christmas approaches, other familiar aspects of the holiday emerge, including the creation of Kris Kringle’s red suit, which is actually the second attempt after an elf tailor sews a green suit (probably a nod to some historical depictions of Santa).

On Christmas Eve night, Jor-El, I mean, an unnamed ancient elf (Burgess Meredith) shows up and basically repeats that Claus will delivers toys to all the children of the world on Christmas Eve, and then christens him with his new name: Santa Claus. With that, the sleigh is packed, the eight reindeer are fed special food which enables them to fly, and Santa gives the signal to head out to deliver presents.

As the centuries pass, Santa becomes an enduring figure the world over, shown in a montage that includes the origins of such things as the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (AKA “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), the leaving of cookies and milk, the list of who’s naughty and who’s nice, the checking of it twice, and also, the invention of the snow globe. In fact, it seems the latter was invented by Patch, which prompts Santa to make him his main toy-making assistant.

Had the film ended here, it would be a perfect movie. Unfortunately, the film loses its momentum when we suddenly shift to contemporary times. It’s at this point that the movie decides to give center stage to a lackluster subplot involving a bitter, homeless orphan boy in New York named Joe (Christian Fitzpatrick). In a crass bit of product placement, Joe hungrily watches people devour burgers and fries at a McDonald’s for what feels like minutes on end, until he gets a free meal from a bored rich girl named Cornelia (Carrie Kei Heim).

But then it’s time for one of Santa’s annual deliveries, during which he decides to give Joe some Christmas cheer by befriending him, and later Cornelia, and flying Joe around town in his sleigh for a while. And I’m not one to expect child actors to give great performances; not every kid can be Haley Joel Osment, but these two kids don’t exactly endear themselves to us, with Joe coming off as annoying while Cornelia is just bland.

Just prior to this, we learned Patch’s new position has prompted him to come up with new things to invent. Eventually, he creates an automated assembly line machine that lets the elves make toys faster. He’s delighted by the speed at which the thing is spitting out toys, but unbeknownst to any of the elves, the machine is starting to sloppily put the toys together.

The toys begin breaking apart not long after they’re delivered, and this makes people apparently lose faith in Santa. Both Joe and Cornelia get criticized for even believing in Santa, which makes one wonder where the people in this film think the toys are coming from in the first place. This discontent with Santa leads to Patch resigning his post by saying that “red just isn’t my color”—you know, instead of simply performing some routine maintenance on the stupid machine that caused all the trouble.

With that, Patch leaves the North Pole and winds up in New York, where a toy magnate named B.Z. (John Lithgow) is being forced to withdraw all his toys from stores because they’re also displaying signs of shoddy workmanship. Patch witnesses some of these toys being taken out of a store, and mistakenly thinks they’re being sold at a fast pace.

So Patch meets up with B.Z., and after some brief incredulity on the B.Z.’s part about meeting an elf, they strike a deal to make a Christmas treat for children. This treat involves the food that makes the reindeer fly, and sure enough, when Patch delivers his new lollipop (in a fancy new flying car he’s invented), the candy immediately becomes a big hit, because anyone eating it temporarily floats. And apparently, the FDA is not too concerned about the potential side effects of ingesting this candy. Maybe they’re just as happy as everyone else thinking about the money they’ll save on gas.

The success of the lollipop prompts B.Z. to ask Patch to make a stronger mixture of the reindeer food, this time in the form of candy canes. Patch reluctantly agrees to have them ready by next Christmas, but B.Z. doesn’t want to wait that long, and suggests creating a holiday “sequel” to fill the void. Lithgow then chews the scenery like there’s no tomorrow when he plans for the canes to be in stores by March 25, announcing, “We’ll call it ‘Christmas II’!”

Oh, and what’s Santa doing during all this? He’s sulking because he misses Patch and thinks the world no longer loves him. And this is pretty much all he does until the movie’s finale.

One night, Joe decides to pay Cornelia a visit by sneaking into her house (how romantic), where it’s revealed that B.Z. is actually Cornelia’s step-uncle. Joe is caught and locked up in the basement of B.Z.’s factory, while Cornelia overhears B.Z.’s assistant informing him of a slight defect in the candy canes: they explode when exposed to extreme heat. Patch knows nothing about this product flaw, and B.Z. is planning to sell the canes anyway and let Patch take the fall.

At long last, Santa comes back into the film when Cornelia writes him a letter explaining the situation. He soon shows up via her chimney and off they go to rescue Joe.

Cut to Patch finding and releasing an initially-hostile Joe. Patch also realizes that Santa still likes him when he sees a gift Santa gave Joe: it’s a wood-carved likeness of Patch made by Santa’s own hands. Joe then stops hating Patch when he sees his fancy flying car, which Patch loads up with the (now radioactively glowing) candy canes, planning to return them all to the North Pole.

In the midst of all this, the police have (somehow) closed in on B.Z., who manages to escape capture by wolfing down as many of the magic candy canes as possible. He then leaps out of his office window and just keeps floating up into the air.

Meanwhile, Patch and Joe are heading north, unaware that the candy canes have turned Patch’s car into a flying Ford Pinto. The car’s flight is generating extreme heat, which leads to those candy canes catching fire. Fortunately for them, action hero Santa Claus (and Cornelia) show up to save them just as the car blows up.

The four return to the North Pole with the two kids planning to stay a while. (Which makes sense for Joe, since he’s an orphan, but even though Cornelia’s technically an orphan, you’d have to think that at least her nanny or the kids at school would be freaked out over her sudden disappearance.) And presumably, Patch will return from his leave of absence to finally fix his damn toy-making machine.

The movie ends with B.Z. and the remains of Patch’s car just floating off into space. At least we know he won’t be out there forever, since 3rd Rock From the Sun was only ten years or so away. And part of me wonders if this ending was meant as a demented homage to how the Superman films always ended with Christopher Reeve soaring around in orbit.

The reason the film starts to fail after the first half-hour is because the title character becomes just as irrelevant as Superman in Superman III, where the Man of Steel ends up playing second-fiddle to Richard Pryor’s antics. Here, Santa ends up being little more than a deus ex machina at the end of a story starring John Lithgow and Dudley Moore. David Huddleston certainly looks the part, and overall provides a good performance, but for being the title character, Santa really isn’t fleshed out very much or given that much to do.

Even worse, the characters the movie focuses on are just irritating. Moore certainly had great comic timing, as Arthur proved, but his character here doesn’t have anything close to the same wittiness. The jokes Moore delivers here never rise above the level of Patch’s annoying habit of using puns in his everyday speech, like “elf-control”, “elf-pity”, “elf-esteem”, and “elf-explanatory”. Oh, I get it. He’s an elf!

The only one who’s truly fun to watch here is Lithgow. This isn’t surprising, since he could already play villains in his sleep by this point and could ham it up with the best of them.

Unlike Superman, I can’t say if the Salkinds planned to make a movie series out of this idea. But the failure of this film proved that things tend to work out for the best, because I’m guessing any follow-ups would have sidelined Kris Kringle in favor of over-the-top villains and in-name-only comic relief. No company has decided to actually create Christmas II for real (yet), but at least we can be thankful there never was a Santa Claus II.